Morocco: a journey in the space between monarchy and Islamism

About the author
Nelcya Delanoe is a professor of history at the University of Paris (Nanterre), and the author of Poussieres d’empires (Paris, PUF editions/Casablanca, Tarik editions, 2002).

I went to Morocco in early December 2002, to attend the Salon international du livre (international book fair) and to present my own book, Poussieres d’empires. My travels took me to Safi, Marrakesh and Rabat, as well as Casablanca itself.

Like both my parents I was born and raised in Morocco. My grandparents were each doctors on my father’s side, farmers on my mother’s. Both sets of grandparents came in from Europe with French colonisation and the ‘opening’ of the country under Hubert Lyautey.

My father was a liberal and supported the nationalist movement for independence. He risked his own life and position (a doctor like his parents), and did indeed sacrifice his career in the process. I approved of his choice then and still do.

Later, some brave Moroccans and a very few French democrats (myself among the latter) came together to defend those Moroccan citizens whom the country’s king – then Hassan II – had jailed on account of their militant (usually, but not only, Marxist) beliefs.

After unfair trials, some of them had been condemned to long imprisonment in the state’s dark, doomed, coffin-like torture centres. Inside, many had died or disappeared, especially those who had resorted to arms or conspiracy against the regime; others were executed in the wake of two military coups. Many more suffered as many as eight to eighteen years in jail merely for having the wrong opinions.

Finally, in the late 1980s, those who had survived years of incarceration started to be released into the light.

Circles of power

By this time, King Hassan II was old and ill. He had refused to turn the feudal country he had inherited from his own father, Mohamed V, the architect of Morocco’s independence, into a modern and democratic state. He was aware of the fact that accumulated social tensions would bring disaster to the end of his reign. There had been many uprisings before, violently suppressed by the army. Thus, he passed the burden of reform to a ‘socialist’ government, headed by prime minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, once an arch opponent, who had lived in exile for many years.

This gentleman’s agreement came with a price. As recently revealed, Youssoufi and some members of his Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP) had in fact conspired to overthrow Hassan II. Not only that, they had joined Hassan II’s ‘faithful’ servant and prime minister, General Muhammad Oufkir, in at least one of his two failed, bloody coups against his king.

Oufkir, hated by the people, was the head of the intelligence and royal forces as well as interior minister and (later) defence minister. In the cold war years, Oufkir and the King had steered Morocco firmly into the anti-communist, pro-American camp, as well as intermediaries between Israel and the Arab world – a significant role for an Arab and Muslim country on the fringes of southern Europe.

Among the key events of those years was the Paris murder of the famous revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka, a member of Morocco’s socialist party and friend of Youssfi. It became gradually clear that this murder, long a source of tensions between Paris and Rabat, had been engineered by Oufkir; some say it was ordered by the King himself. A family affair, it might be said. Such is Morocco: Shakespearean. As a rule of thumb, to beat them, join them, for we’re all part of the same family conspiracy. Hence so many ugly secrets, and the fact that everyone has some leverage on everyone else.

In his struggle against the left, King Hassan II had his secret services jail, torture and eliminate all his opponents (armed and unarmed) with the help of the French, American and Israeli secret services. To complete the job, he turned to the Intégristes – radical Islamists – and their many rich, usually Saudi, financial backers (even though Hassan was himself one of the richest men in the world).

Here evolved one of the pivotal trends of the age: using the Islamists as a weapon to crush the mostly secular left (although Hassan did not shy from having Islamists arrested as well, especially when they proved too independent for him). At the same time, Hassan II reinforced the ‘sacredness’ of the monarchy by making it a beacon of Islam, and constantly reminding the nation that he was a direct heir of the prophet. The crown of this effort was the mosque he built in Casablanca, a splendid and megalomaniac piece of religious art, paid for by forcibly squeezing money from every one of his impoverished subjects.

The state and radical Islamism

As in Morocco, so in Egypt, Palestine, faraway Indonesia: Islamism was used by the state to destroy the forces of social progress (or in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan, used by Pakistan and the US to destroy the Soviet-inspired secular government). This happened even when the Islamists themselves righteously accused governments of corrupt and dictatorial rule, which left the majority of the people mired in shameful poverty.

For there was also a positive element to the Islamist project. The faithful built schools (Koranic, of course, but children – girls as well as boys – learned to read and write), rid poor areas of drug dealers and prostitution networks, organised summer camps for legions of street children, taught them swimming and martial arts. They coordinated rubbish collection, food distribution, sacred festivals.

They ran for election in students’ associations and unions. In all their activities, separation of the sexes was gradually enforced. A costume – beard for men, scarf on girls – became the fearful norm. More and more mosques were built, ruled by imams supposedly under the control of the (king-appointed) minister of religious affairs.

In other words, the Islamists filled the gap where the state should have been. There was work to do and they did part of it.

Islamist glamour

After Hassan II’s death in July 1999, the new young king, Mohamed VI, not only welcomed back exiled leftist opponents but freed the radical Islamist leader, Cheikh Abdessalam Yassine, from house arrest. Yassine’s daughter, Nadia, has taken his place in the political arena. She is brilliant, dynamic, intelligent, clever. Her criticism of a corrupt regime contemptuous of democracy strikes a chord in the population, as did her appeals to austerity and decency in the wake of Hassan’s demise.

The followers of Yassine, Al-Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality Movement), refused fully to participate in the September 2002 legislative elections – the closest to free elections in the country’s history – in order to avoid lending legitimacy to the constitution designed by Hassan II to serve his autocratic rule. Their Islamist rivals, the moderate Party for Justice and Democracy (PJD), ran in half of the country only, to avoid ‘an Algerian situation’; that is, winning and precipitating a confrontation with the army, as happened in the fateful elections of 1992 in Morocco’s neighbour.

The PJD’s tactics were acute, for despite their self-denial they still almost won the elections outright. The remnants of the left coalition just managed to come second, after the establishment ‘Independence’ party. The relative success of the PJD is significant; many people voted for them who would otherwise have voted for the more radical, populist, Yassine movement.

In short, the Islamists in Morocco appear to be on the side of the poor and of an ‘Islamist democracy’ (where decisions are made by the umma). Yassine is the living proof that women are no longer to be socially downgraded or confined; she speaks confidently in perfect French to the world’s press, wearing make-up and an elegant white scarf, the picture of sophistication.

A parade of darkness

Most of the publishers at the Casablanca book fair were from Morocco itself and the Middle East. The former – bright, active and courageous – presented books written and/or translated by local and foreign writers in both French and Arabic; essays about current political and historical issues (un-censored for three years now); as well as novels, poetry, short stories, detective stories, children’s books, comics, CD-roms, classics.

Across from my publisher’s stand was another, enormous stand, organised like an immense café mauresque, occupying fully half of that part of the building. It was the Saudi stand. There, books were in Arabic only. They were leather-bound heavy books or pulp booklets, with front pages in sharp colours or sober gold Koranic verses. Contrary to the rule, books were not sold but given, together with audio or videocassettes, records and CDs. The books were devoted to interpretations of a verse or two of the Koran; to sermons by famous imams; to analysis of religious issues.

In the alleys between this and the Syrian stand (also huge), bearded men in white tunics and pants or grey robes sang sacred verses and debated amongst themselves. Some women were dressed in black robes, their bodies covered from head to toe, wandered up and down. I wondered whether they could read the books, or (behind such opaque blackness) how. This new mixture of harsh ostentation and ghostliness was an unsettling sight in a Morocco where Islam is indeed popular, and displayed with rural, rather open manners. Were these women forced to parade as so many political declarations of their own inferiority? Did they wish to do so? Whatever the answer, in the last year their numbers have multiplied enormously on the streets.

Alongside were women in less comprehensive dress, who nevertheless wear floating dark nun-like robes, their chins and heads covered. At the Salon, one schoolgirl dressed thus asked me with a delightful smile where she could find Antigone: did she know that Antigone would have fought tooth and nail against such an imposition?

Political struggle in religious garb

Press reports around 7 December 2002 announced that five women had had their throats slit in the last two months in Rabat. It was a warning; they survived. The attacks had all taken place in the elite district of the capital, where armed guards protect most of the villas. The assailants were men dressed ‘the Afghan way’. None had been arrested. In other parts of the country, less fortunate women had indeed been killed, their throats cut open.

None of this is new, nor did it happen overnight. The post Hassan II regime had promised reforms, but nothing fundamental changed for ordinary people. To make things worse, a two-year drought was followed in December by weeks of flooding, with precious little help for the devastated farms, roads, small cities and shantytowns. People feel abandoned by the authorities. To the dismay (or the satisfaction?) of the now generally free Moroccan press, this was the very time that Colin Powell chose to make a solemn declaration to the effect that Morocco was one of the few truly democratic countries in the Arab world….

In Morocco, the Intégristes are blackmailing the traditional Islamic establishment, with the monarchy at its peak – successfully so, because the latter refuses seriously to reform itself.

The struggle we are now faced with is a political one for power and wealth, dressed up in religious clothes. Those who wear the robe of purity employ religious discourse in the effort to impose an even more inegalitarian, male-only regime. The notion of purity, as we have known for centuries, is a weapon that kills.

Against it, many brave men and even braver women in Morocco are fighting back, to defend civic space, plurality, secularity and equality. Despite the limited freedom they are granted, they win daily, often miniscule, victories. Their support for the Palestinian cause (that is, for a secular state, by now almost completely destroyed by the Israeli right with the help of Hamas and Hezbollah) and their anger at the current policy of the US and Israel is strong. And yet, they are the true democrats of Morocco. They should not be left in isolation.